Bill Johnston – 23rd September 2022
Subjects Process, Citizens Assemble: Scotland the Monarchy post Elizabeth
Whilst the passing of Queen Elizabeth and the ritual accession of King Charles III may suggest that the place of the monarchy is settled, there is scope to analyse and question what constitutional and political direction Great Britain takes in the coming years. Of course, the British establishment will be intent on stifling debate before the Coronation of Charles to ensure the national status quo. Arguably this has been the hegemonic purpose behind the orchestration of events and media coverage since the Queen’s death.
These manoeuvres can be seen as part of the conceptual framing of a discourse of age and ageing in the UK in relation to politics and constitutional options. In this case an emphasis on the relative support for monarchy along generational lines – older people very supportive, younger people less so.
The national conversation needs to move beyond simple, possibly outright Ageist, categories of “old” versus “young” to offer a more nuanced approach, which may be useful in debating Great Britain’s future before Charles’s coronation, and to suggest a means of focussing that debate.
The Language of Age: Chronology, life course, generations, and cohorts.
The ‘Elizabethan Age’ was probably one of the most repeated phrases in recent weeks, giving the impression of a steady flow of history and national unity through the life of one key figure with whom we can all feel some form of relationship due to her considerable longevity. Accounts of generational differences in the response to Elizabeth’s passing and the future of monarchy have been equally prominent. Older generations typically presented as supportive on both topics, whilst younger groups gave more mixed responses, respectful of the moment of mourning but sceptical on the forward march of monarchy.
In effect the chronological age of the Queen (96) as well as the length of her reign (longer than the lifetime of around 89% of the current Scottish population) is conflated with notions of a social and cultural ‘age’ to present a simplistic account of constitutional factors such as the place of monarchy in a democracy.
Exclusive focus on the personal and public life course of the Queen relegated all other lives to the side lines and made it easy to present emotional reactions of loss, respect for the departed and condolences for the bereaved as the entirety of ‘our’ lives. Since most reporters never went into depth, or sought out alternative perspectives, we are led to believe the ‘nation’ is united not only in grief for the passing of Queen Elizabeth, but also on the necessity of the instant succession to the throne and headship of state by her eldest son.
However, the individual life course is contextualised by social change in historical time, impacting all those alive at the same period in a variety of disparate ways. This socialised experience is usefully described in terms of age cohorts and period effects. Dramatic events in history like wars, colonialism, economic shocks, pandemics, and social conflicts colour the experience of people in a common age cohort and can define their views on the relationship of monarchy to democracy.
The repeated references to World War II and the early days of Elizabeth’s reign as common, defining experiences of the older age groups turning out for acts of remembrance exemplifies the use of the age cohort construct. What is missing, however, is any detailed sense of the breadth of the experiences and opinions of younger generations and this impoverishes any explanation of why they might be disillusioned with the status quo and what they might want for the future.
At base to be young is to be regarded as active and full of potential, to be old is to be passive and empty of possibility. This bald proposition might describe ageing as generally understood in the UK in the last hundred years and explain the emphasis on the future belonging to the young. This is certainly a common perspective on the prospects for Scottish independence. Applied to the question of monarchy, however, there is a clear threat to its future if the current cohorts of energetic young people, who haven’t shared the earlier experiences of the old groupings, turn against the monarchy or are at least willing to debate its future if given the opportunity.
This is an intriguing shift in perspective from the establishment position of turning ‘the young’ against ‘the old’ over the supposed intergenerational economic advantages of the ‘baby boomers’, to a more unpredictable and therefore unstable position, where younger cohorts might focus on the major political issue of the position of a hereditary monarchy continuing to provide the head of state for a democracy.
This reflective discussion of the ageing narratives displayed in the immediate post Elizabeth I period has begun to unpack the simplistic ‘old versus young’ split on the question of monarchy. There may therefore be further scope to challenge the dominant assumption that a hereditary monarchy is essential to both the constitutional future of Scotland and the nature of campaigning for independence given the varied positions across the age range.
What do the Polls say about the Prospects for the Monarchy?
Attitudes towards the monarchy have been polled extensively for many years. The question of whether the UK should become a Republic has been asked by IPSOS for almost 30 years now and it has shown that a consistent one in five people are in favour of a Republic.
Attitudes in favour of retaining the monarchy have been more volatile (indicating that movements tend to be within people shifting from pro-monarchy to “Don’t Know” and/or the reverse according to current events). Both IPSOS and YouGov have recently shown that the past decade of declining favour of monarchy (from 75% in 2013 to 59% in March 2022 in the YouGov data) largely reversed – possibly in connection to PR surrounding the Platinum Jubilee – up until the death of Queen Elizabeth. It remains to be seen if King Charles will inherit this favourable public attitude along with his other wealth and assets.
There is a strong correlation with age in these attitude surveys with younger people generally being more in favour of an elected Head of State but it is worth noting that even as recently as 2016, folk aged under 24 held the monarchy in almost as much favour as the rest of the public. It is only since then that YouGov records a shift with more support for a republic and, at the very least, extremely volatile support for the monarchy. This sudden shift may be generational (with the very youngest of that age cohort holding extremely different attitudes compared to their peers just a few years ahead of them) but it may also be that this age group is actively changing their mind about the purpose of a Head of State and the means by which we select them for the role.
The UK – and Scotland either within or outwith it – stands at a point of transition that the purpose of a monarchy (a known, stable and uncontested transfer of power and position from monarchy to heir) is supposed to prevent. In this age of democracy, it should therefore be time to dispense with the oft-repeated excuse that “now is not the time” to discuss alternatives. Perhaps now, right at this moment of transition that has not been personally experienced by the vast majority of the Scottish public, is very much the time to discuss who should represent Scotland as Head of State, how we put them in that position and – channelling Tony Benn – how we should get rid of them.
Next steps for Scotland: A Citizen’s Assembly before the Coronation
The device of the Citizen’s Assembly has gained traction in recent years and is proposed as a powerful mechanism for generating and reporting public views on major social questions. The SNP government have certainly embraced the practice. A key benefit is to counter the influence of party politics, popular propaganda, and ill-informed opinions by establishing a representative assembly of citizens who benefit from expert information and have the time and space to discuss issues in a secure environment.
An assembly representing the variety of age cohorts in Scotland’s population, in addition to other equity and inclusion characteristics, would be very relevant to the issues discussed above.
A Citizen’s Assembly on the future of Scotland’s relationship to the monarchy could be shaped by different scenarios:
- UK status quo as hereditary monarchy.
- Scotland independent as a constitutional monarchy retaining the current hereditary line.
- Independent Scottish Republic with elected head of state.
This would allow careful and informed discussion of the questions raised by each scenario, which could be carefully debated as opposed to propagandised by partisans of any one position or pre-determined by party policy on monarchy and independence (SNP for retaining, others for abolishing).
Conclusion: Beyond the Scottish Border
We have time and an opportunity before the coronation to explore a key aspect of the constitution from a Scottish perspective. However, we should not forget the other nations forming the UK. English independence is a valid option, albeit carefully avoided in favour of the crude British/English nationalism of the Tories and their allies. There is scope to at least challenge Westminster politicians to ask English voters what they think about English independence as opposed to simply denigrating Scottish aspirations.
In any case Welsh nationalist protests at the imposition of Charles’s son William as Prince of Wales and Sein Fein’s refusal to take part in the proclamation of Charles as King both suggest that the constitutional future of Great Britain is not settled, and that Scotland is not alone in contemplating a different constitutional future.
Bill Johnston is the co-author of All of Our Futures.